Trip Coach: December 2, 2008
Alex Robinson, who's written extensively on Portugal and Lisbon for DK Eyewitness Travel Guides, answered your questions.
Alex Robinson:Hello Everyone. Greetings from a cold, dark Europe! I'm Alex—I write and photograph for books and magazines in the US and UK and I specialize in Portuguese-speaking countries. It's a pleasure to be here with you to talk about one of my favorite destinations—Europe's hidden treasure, Portugal.
Bloomington, Ind.:Hi, Alex. We were in Lisboa in late fall 2007 and have wanted to return ever since. We are a couple in our fit early 60's and are interested in beautiful cities & towns, historic places, as well as the countryside and natural areas. We like to walk a LOT and that is our main activity. We don't like tours and are good navigators. However, we enjoy hearing about a place from knowledgeable locals. We'd like to meet people if possible. He's a judge and I'm a planner. Questions:
1. Best season to visit Portugal with best weather and prices and least tourists?
2. Where to stay in Lisboa, Evora and... where else to go?
3. How to meet people? Town walking tours?
4. Natural parks for light day hikes.
5. Any other tips? Package companies?
Thanks for your advice.
Alex Robinson:Hi, Bloomington. Well, here are some thoughts:
1. Best season to visit Portugal with best weather and prices and least tourists? The early Spring or Autumn are good times—say March or mid-September. The weather is generally good—with long, warm days and there are fewer tourists.
2. Where to stay in Lisboa, Evora and...where else to go? In Lisboa I'd choose the Bairro Alto Hotel or the Heritage Av Liberadade—a new boutique in a historic town house. Both are close to the centre. The Bairro Alto has a very good restaurant.
3. How to meet people? Town walking tours? It's generally pretty easy to meet people informally in Portugal and many locals speak English. If you want something more organised then companies like Portugal Walks and Walking Europe offer a broad range of walking tours both guided and self-guided.
4. Natural parks for light day hikes. I like the Serra da Estrela in the centre of the country. It's one of the wildest parts of the country yet, as it's bisected by roads, it offers light and short walk as well as longer hikes. The long u-shaped Vale de Zezere valley is particularly pretty in spring—with wild flowers and deep green grass and there's a waterfall nearby, the Poço do Inferno.
5. Any other tips? Package companies? The companies I have listed above will be helpful for what you're looking for. I'd hire a car, buy a Michelin map and a guide (Cadogan are good), and drive inland from Lisbon....
New York City, N.Y.:Is there any particular site, attraction, or event that you would recommend for a family traveling in Portugal with a 16- or 17-year old teenager?
Alex Robinson:Think about going in July and attending the Festas de São João in Porto. Thousands of people of all ages descend on the UNESCO world heritage historic city center to watch a big fireworks display and hit each other over the head with floppy, squeeky plastic hammers. There's nothing quite like it anywhere in Europe. Alternatively you could visit the Azores and go whale-watching and diving. The islands have more species of whales and dolphins passing through than pretty much anywhere else in the world, including Moby Dick himself—the sperm Whale.
Phoenix, Ariz.:Where are some good places in Lisbon for authentic (not for tourists) Fado?
Alex Robinson: There are a huddle of places in the streets around the castle which are unreliably good—depending on who's playing. I agree that it's not fun to feel part of a huge tourist crowd, but for the best quality I'd opt for the middle way. The Clube de Fado is a little touristy but it is always good. It's run by one of the country's great masters of the Portuguese Guitar, Mario Pacheco and the shows there are first rate...choice quality stuff not just a pantomime for visitors....
Santa Barbara, Calif.:We (mother and college-age daughter) want to go to Portugal in the spring. We will get around by train, possibly fly in to Lisbon and out by Madrid. Our total time is close to 3 weeks. Any itinerary suggestions? Is it best to do the open-jaw flight like this? Thank you for your help!
Alex Robinson:Spend ten days in and round Lisbon visiting the city, Sintra and Casacais, the pretty medieval village of Obidos and heading in land to Evora. Return to Lisbon and take the train to Coimbra—one of Europe's oldest university cities. Take the train inland from here to Guarda from where you can organise hikes into the beautiful Serra da Estrela mountains (enquire at the tourist office for local tour operators and buses—on Praça Luís de Camões T271 20 55 30). From Guarda you can catch the train across the border to Salamanca—another beautiful medieval university town in Spain, Avila with its famous castle and then Madrid.